Conversations with Bill
by G. McLeod Bryan
W. W. Finlator has been variously called the watchdog of the state
government, the conscience of the south, the gadfly of his denomination, the
dean of all churchmen supporting labor unions, the defender of civil liberties,
and a friend of the poor, the powerless, and the voiceless. A Baptist minister,
reared in North Carolina and serving for fifty years churches in the eastern
half, the last twenty-six at Pullen Memorial in Raleigh, he has also served in a
national capacity on many boards, including the American Civil Liberties
Union, Southerners for Economic Justice, and the Advisory Committee for
the U. S. Civil Rights Commission.
His sermons have been more widely reproduced in newspapers and
journals than perhaps any other southern clergyman. His writings have
appeared extensively in national journals: during 1981 alone six articles
appeared and one national journal between the years 1967 and 1981 ran
nineteen. He commenced a regular column in 1939 under the pen-name
"Festus Erasmus. " He sparked the founding of a magazine, Christian
Frontiers, and wrote most of its editorials.
He has won the Frank Porter Graham Award (1980), the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
Award (1980), the N. C. Human Relations Council Award (1981), and several
awards from black groups. Within his own denomination he is celebrated for
having introduced almost annually provocative, socially-concerned resolutions
on issues ranging from the banning of capital punishment to the
decriminalization of victimless crimes. He has sometimes been called the
minister who marches since he has joined innumerable protest groups, from
the Freedom Riders of 1961 to the ERA rally of 1981.
He has managed a wide friendship stretching across the spectrum of
newspeople, social liberals, judges and politicians, artists and writers,
ecumenical leaders, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish, and university personnel.
All the while he has occupied a pulpit which Sunday after Sunday has
distinguished itself for its prophetic voice. If history is best written by the
preacher who speaks God's apt word to the urgent issues of his generation,
then the researcher cannot ignore Bill Finlator 's files. In fact, the Wisconsin
—continued on back cover.
Paul Green to Bill Finlator, November 12, 1980:
"Dreams that often get fastened down in steel and
concrete, ritual and rote may prove obdurate and
evil, cruel and oppressive, but we must keep at the
business of awakening the sleeper, mustn't we?
by G. McLeod Bryan
Wake Forest University
^«^f^p?^r=Y r -■---•-
Digitized by the Internet Archive
Q Some people say the south would never be what it is without
Bill Finlator, certainly not North Carolina. You have
managed to get the ear of many of our public leaders:
Senator Ervin on civil rights and E.R.A., President Friday
on desegregation of the university system, governors all the
way from Luther Hodges on labor unions to Jim Hunt on
the Wilmington Ten, even to several of our presidents. Tell
me, Bill, what's the secret of a lowly Baptist preacher
speaking to the Cabots and the Lodges?
A I think to stand in a pulpit and not to say something current
and prophetic, speaking not only to my congregation but
to the world today, is wrong, is missing a great
Q You mention the word "prophetic;" you must be aware that
most preachers find themselves more comfortable
functioning as priests and pastors?
A Yes, in summoning up remembrance of things past I am well
aware that, as Robert Frost put it, I took the less traveled
path and it made all the difference. Still I am impressed
with the consistency with which I have fulfilled that
commitment made years ago, which was that my ministry
should give major emphasis to corporate and collective
ethics rather than to private and individual morality. Not
that I have minimized the latter at all but that I have long
known that some 95% of my fellow clergymen would be
working that side of the street to the neglect, as I feared,
of what St. Paul called the principalities and powers and
spiritual wickedness in the high places. Or, to borrow from
Reinhold Niebuhr's great book, Moral Man and Immoral
Society, my decision was to leave 'moral man' to the
tender mercies of my brethren while I, however
ineffectively in my Don Quixote role, would take on the
'immoral society,' and I have no apologies.
Q When did you first want to be a prophet?
A Oh, I guess all little Baptist boys aspiring to be preachers
want to be prophets. I even attended a seminary which
boasted of being America's "school for prophets"! But I
observed that though the word was celebrated and the
prophet-heroes of the past ages were eulogized, the
professors and their protegees comfortably exited through
the same door by which they entered. I only encountered
the full dimensions of the prophetic when reading about
Walter Rauschenbusch, the early twentieth century Baptist
prophet, and his conception of the Social Gospel. I could
accept that role of the minister. As I see prophecy it reads:
In compassion God speaks to the human community
through certain rare, called persons. Those who
authentically represent God interpret the activity of God
in social history. They answer the presence of God in the
midst of political and economic life; they foretell the
judgment and hope that are implicit in the loyalties and
practices of the common life; and they set forth the vision
of covenantal renewal. . . . The ministry must be all of this;
otherwise it can really be a sort of cop-out and a desire to
escape from the awesome and shaking prophetic word.
You must have known rather early in life that such a
vocational choice was awfully presumptuous and would
entrap you in controversy?
A It is indeed presumptuous to make such a claim. Reinhold
Niebuhr once said that any minister who says, "Thus saith
the Lord," is either self-deluded or a charlatan or a
prophet, and the percentages against his being the last are
Q And what about controversy? A lawyer-member of your
former pastorate in Elizabeth City recalls how "every time
you opened your mouth half the world got mad."
A The prophetic ministry is the strait gate and the narrow way,
and few there be that enter in thereat. The demands are
stringent, the requirements tough, and the journey lonely.
In every way the minister who chooses it is tasked and
challenged far beyond his brethren who travel highways
surveyed by tradition and paved with orthodoxy . . . Still,
as I wrote in my first article published in the Biblical
Recorder in 1939, "It is for us to observe that wherever this
spirit of defiance and daring has entered into the heart of
man the stream of human history has changed its course."
Q Incidentally the first article you got published in a national
magazine was entitled "The Prophetic Ministry." In that
you remarked how "many a prophet has been gibbeted in
the public press." How do you see yourself treated at the
hands of the press over the years?
A I think the press has been very fair with me and very
generous. Not that I haven't gotten my come-up-ances
from the fourth estate from time to time. But of course I
am fair game, and that's part of the dialogue. As far as
setting me up or staging a story, it would be only normal
that a reporter, being human, might turn to sources that he
would find friendly and readily available. It cannot be
denied that I have relished the publicity granted to my
views by the press, I mean of course the secular press (the
religious press was not so receptive). I would not say that
editors have gone out of their way to give me a good press,
but I would say that editors have understood what I said
and did and for the most part supported me on principle.
The press has been extraordinarily kind to me. They have
always quoted me, represented me, fairly. Surely there
have been times the local press has taken exception to my
position, and written editorials taking sharp contrast with
me, but they have rarely attacked me personally.
Q You seem to have forgotten the vicious attacks of certain
papers and the seemingly running vendetta of the
now-senator Jesse Helms belittling you in his WRAL
A I guess you can say that the most scathing ad hominem
attack ever made against me was his editorial of November
17, 1967. I had presented my anti-Vietnam resolution at
the Baptist State Convention and it was rejected. Helms
commented: "The most encouraging report of the Baptist
State Convention's rejection of Rev. W. W. Finlator's
proposed resolution on Vietnam was not that the Baptists
rejected it, but that they rejected it with such swiftness
that no doubt remains as to the question of Mr. Finlator's
lack of influence within his own denomination. Hereafter,
no matter how much publicity the gentleman receives
from the 'liberal' press, he has now overplayed his hand. . . .
Ironically it was the Rev. Finlator's insatiable appetite for
publicity that did him in." Yet subsequent to that day, the
Senator has expressed his friendship for me and has
incorporated my statements into the Congressional
Record. You must remember that we know each other as
fellow Christians; he's a Baptist too.
Q Would you grant that the press has actually promoted you?
A Yes, you may say that the press has boosted me. Very early
along my way, I sensed a collegia! relationship. We were
partners in a common cause. We were able to sustain,
affirm and promote each other's activities. Many of the
newspaper people I have known have been very fine
persons, open to the truth, and I found that very
consonant with what I thought should be going on in the
pulpit. I sensed the press could be in many ways an
extension of the pulpit. I always felt that the pulpit is an
open thing. It's in the public eye. Nothing you can say
there can be hidden; it belongs to the public, and there's
nothing wrong in extending it beyond the borders of the
church. Items that are in the public interest, I have no
hesitation in sharing with the press.
Q There are some, even your friendly fellow clergymen, who
maintain you receive an undue amount of coverage.
A Offhand, I'd say I get more coverage because I am a Baptist, a
Southern Baptist, if you please! The gentlemen, and
women, of the press have the habit of looking for a voice
within the ranks which sounds a different trumpet. It's
also because of the region we live in. It's the south where
traditionally when a clergyman said something on a
relevant public issue he was listened to. The south, even its
newspapers, still pays attention to the pulpit. Also, I can
reveal that some of the journalists may have used me as a
surrogate pastor. So many have given up on the Church.
And many are really moralists and prophets. In many ways
their role is analogous to mine. They, like the pulpit
minister, stand in an adversarial posture to the
Q Let's go back to the question of controversy. You have quite
a reputation for enjoying controversy.
A On occasions I have been asked why I become involved in
controversy. Controversy is exciting, and I like exciting
things. Put another way, a minister has to be three things:
bold, brassy and something of a ham. At times I have been
all three. But most of all I want to be the first. As a matter
of fact, the pulpit is always in the limelight and to occupy
the pulpit Sunday after Sunday without making a
difference, without really stirring the people, without
agitating for the Lord, may be a big sin.
Q But don't you run the danger of popping-off without all the
facts, of dogmatizing from a heavily biased stance?
A I don't deny that my answers are often quick and simple. My
only rationalization is that in certain times of general
emergency, forthrightness demands vigorous statements,
not namby-pamby mutterings.
Q Have there been major issues which you dared not ventilate
though you secretly cherished doing so?
A Yes and I still have to live with the shame of being silent
when I should have spoken, quiescent when I should have
been involved. I should have defended more loyally and
loudly Frank Porter Graham when he was being smeared in
his campaign for the Senate of the United States. Again, in
1960, I wish that I might have raised my voice more
clearly on the question of Jack Kennedy's religion,
defending his right to be a Catholic and at the same time
to maintain the principle of the separation of church and
state. . . . You know there is this prudential and cautious
vein in me which a lot of folks don't see. Perhaps a more
honest term is cowardice. I do indeed pop off too many
times and I have been biased from time to time. Issues
before our people today are complex and convuluted and
it is not right for a minister to give easy solutions. We just
have to be on our guard continually against this.
Nonetheless, to say nothing, to show no outrage or anger,
or to raise no protest is a more grievous error than to make
statements without waiting for all the facts to come in. I
did try to warn my congregation, however, that all "the
noise and fireworks of controversy" and my understanding
and assessment of it, is not the same as the "voice of
God." I have never claimed any inerrancy or insisted that I
have a special pipeline to heaven unavailable to others.
Q Don't you lose opportunities to address all the people when
you take this tact? For instance, your advocacy of the
poor and those on the underside of our society, clearly a
biased advocacy, cuts you off from addressing the power
structures of the community, does it not?
A Of course I have lost opportunities to speak, many times.
This is to be expected. There have even been actual
cancellations, not only from civic clubs but from PTAs and
college campuses. But there is always this other
consideration. No person can try to listen carefully to the
gospel and be aware of the world today without becoming
controversial. You yourself cited to me once Martin
Luther's describing the authentic Christian as being present
where the battle rages. He also speaks of the "wicked
silence" of church people. When push comes to shove, I'd
rather be with the non-silent ones.
Q And how did your Pullen congregation take the many
controversies of their pastor?
A There's never been a time that a minister as kooky as I am
hasn't distressed them. But the Pullen folk are the most
free-will Baptists I've ever seen. They're a fascinating
collection of humanity. They do their own thinking. This
is what makes them — and keeps them — the most exciting
congregation I ever knew.
Still the most grievous controversy for you personally arose
within the ranks of the church itself, over your 1979
telegram as a private citizen urging President Carter to
enforce the desegregation laws pertaining to the university
A Church divisions are always regrettable and very difficult to
know how to respond to. I suppose that to some extent I
lived in a kind of dream world. I have always known that I
subjected these wonderful people at Pullen to a whole lot
and it is little short of miraculous that they sustained, if
not tolerated, me for more than a quarter of a century. I
know of few other churches in the south where I might
have survived under similar circumstances. So as
unfortunate as the entire situation has been and as much as
it hurt us and as much as I am tempted to resent it
bitterly, it has to be seen in the wider perspective.
Q Though I know your career was filled with a series of
controversies, which would you specify as the pivotal ones,
the ones which you think helped shape the course of
A Well, the really big ones, the ones which never simmered
down, centered around race, war and unions. But would
you believe that the most mail response was stirred by my
article refusing to cooperate in the Raleigh sponsorship of
Billy Graham? Even Billy himself mailed me a confidential
retort. And his daughter, who incidentally is married to
my dentist, gave a lengthy response in space alloted to her
by the newspaper which had earlier carried my statement.
Q What did you say that carried such a sting?
A Dr. Graham is a phenomenon of our times. However, his
interpretation of the Gospel and mine are not the same. He
preaches on sin and judgment, as every preacher should,
but sins with him are personal and private. As one
theologian puts it, of the Saturday night variety. Nowhere
do I find Dr. Graham on record as denouncing the sins of
corporate powers and economic structures. His call for law
and order is for the man in the street rather than for ITT
and his strictures against permissiveness are never directed
at the laissez faire practices of economic and industrial
giants. I often think of Jesus' remark to the effect that
while these things should be done, we should not leave the
weightier matters of the law ... I went on to challenge
him as to why he supported capital punishment and the
Vietnam war, and why he had remained aloof from the
civil rights campaign for blacks. ... I must add quickly
that something some of us said must have had its effect
because Billy has moved more constructively in our
direction since then.
Q You cite the abstract issues of race, war and unions — surely
they are not controversial in the abstract?
A Oh no, I didn't mean that at all. It was when I spoke out or
acted concretely that the storms broke. For instance, my
1965 telegram to President Johnson opposing escalation
and my joining Clergy and Laymen Against the War, these
specifics raised the rankles. Vietnam seemed to upset the
congregation, and the public, more than anything else I
had done up to that moment. It sounded like betrayal or
treason. The people had sons in service. N. C. State
University of course, like most institutions, was more or
less involved in the war effort. The congregation was just
not up to dealing with a pastor who stood in open defiance
against his nation at war. And, I hasten to add, I must have
bored in too heavily upon them, preaching too many
sermons on the subject. They had a right to squirm.
Even so, they treated me better than the denomination. I
never have been so cruelly treated as when I introduced
my resolutions against the war at the state conventions. I
can still hear the hissing and screaming from the floor of
the 1967 convention: "Send Finlator to Vietnam." Even
the presiding officer violated parliamentary procedure to
squelch me. And, of course, you may have heard of the
celebrated time I was moving to the platform in a
subsequent year to introduce my resolution when a
delegate loudly proclaimed, "I hope you fall into the
Q But that was in jest?
A In those spirited debates it was hard to tell which was in jest
and which was vicious. ... I received similar abuse when I
defended the world champion Cassius Clay when he
refused to be drafted on grounds of his religious
conscience. I was exposing two sacrosanct nerves, racism
and militarism. But I suppose my stands against racism
have brought on the most enduring criticism. Very early,
in my first three pastorates and in my published articles I
kept hammering on the plight of the Negro. With the
Court decision of 1954 I issued a public letter urging our
state officials to comply. But it was when I took to the
streets and approved the sit-ins that I really caught the
flak. It was not easy for me to do this, but when I
observed members of my own congregation marching
along Fayetteville Street to urge the theatres and
restaurants to desegregate I followed suit. But I don't think
they expected me to go as far as I did, and to continue for
so many years. The Marie Hill case, the Wilmington Ten,
the Charlotte Three, Joan Little, the march with Angela
Davis — how many occasions I don't remember.
Q Did your church ever restrain you and did you ever lose
members on account of your witness?
A As to the first, no, never. They were on the whole very
supportive; in fact, many worked harder and were further
along than I. As to losing members, yes. On the occasion
of our entertaining the Poor People marchers in the spring
following King's death, feeding them in our church, I
received a letter from a member moving his membership.
Among the charges he made was that "these people
advocate anarchy and to a great extent are communist
inspired. It is common knowledge that their leaders offer
white students money and all the sex they desire if they
will join the march. With such decadent principles as this, I
just cannot conceive of any church condoning such acts."
Any church which takes a strong, courageous stand on
issues of Christian concern can expect to lose some
members, but it will gain others.
Q You are chaplain of the state AFL-CIO. Perhaps not as
publicized is your winning their award in 1980, with the
plaque reading, "A preacher who practices what he
preaches." How does it happen that a preacher in a
middle-class, white-collar, campus church, and a Baptist at
that, serves as chaplain to a labor union?
A I am unabashedly a friend of labor and industrial unionism.
My father was a railroad conductor and a member of the
Order of Railroad Conductors, a labor union which gave
dignity and security to his work. He kept all three of us
children in college in the heart of the depression. Whatever
gain in working conditions, wages and hours and health
and retirement have come to the laboring people of
America have come through their unions. It is just that,
pure and simple. I have been privileged to stand with labor
leaders in support of minimum wages and in opposition to
the unjust and the unsporting right-to-work laws. I have
strongly endorsed labor's committee on political education
and have encouraged the unions to a policy of bringing our
black citizens into full membership. I have urged the
extension of labor's concern to migrant and unorganized
farm workers who of all groups stand most in need of
labor's friendship. I proudly stood with the AFL-CIO in its
dramatization of grievances against the Carolina Power and
Light Company. And I have gladly contributed my bit
towards exploring areas where church and labor might
work more closely together in common causes. It has been
difficult for me as a child of labor to see why collective
strength as represented in, say, the Merchants Association,
the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of
Manufacturers, the Farm Bureau, medical, bar, real estate
and bankers associations, could suddenly become a thing
of fear and dread, to be legislated against and harried out
of the land, when the working class seeks similar refuge
and security. I always felt that what was good for Paul and
Silas, and for the Hebrew children, was good enough for
me . . .
Q How do you relate your commitments to labor with your
professional job in the church?
A The church must take a new look at labor by taking a new
look at the New Testament. As a child of God, man, any
person, "even the least of these my brethren/' is by virtue
of his humanity of infinite worth regardless of productive
capacity. The lost, the despised, the diseased, the
handicapped, the forgotten, in short, the disadvantaged,
were the people sought out by Jesus for no other reason
than that they were there and God loved them. Hence the
parables of the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep, and the Lost
Son. The church ought to be on the side of the people, I
mean people who can't protect themselves. That accounts
for some of the things I do. I believe that means unionism
for the poor people and unionism against race
discrimination and unionism against a cold war economy.
Q Yet you and I know very well that any history of organized
labor in the south will have to expose the opposition of
the churches to unionism. That history has been
thoroughly documented in Liston Pope's Millhands and
Preachers, and in its forty year follow-up, Spindles and
A I ran into my first real reaction of the church on the occasion
of the Henderson textile strike of 1959. A local Baptist
association of churches actually requested that I address
myself to the strike. What I said then still needs saying,
"It may come with ill grace for an afternoon visitor to take
to task his fellow churchmen in a community that has
suffered what only the residents of Henderson can really
know. An outsider, safe from the awful realities, can be
presumptuous and for this I beg forgiveness. Yet as
outsiders we wondered again and again if the local
churches had no word at all to speak when the entire
community was in the throes of an agonizing struggle.
"That the church spoke the quiet word of solace and
strength to her people, I doubt not, and this is always
important, as is also the office of the church to condemn
violence. But with men out of work week after week, with
the honest expectation of their jobs crumpling into dust at
the last hour, with the fear in their faces and the despair in
their hearts that will drive any man to extremities, with a
state government which in the final analysis had nothing
more to offer than the Highway Patrol and the National
Guard, and with a respected union deliberately 'busted,'
the church, so far as I know, never said a mumbling word!
Surely, my brethren, this is what Martin Luther would
again call 'wicked silence,' and we confess with shame that
we, too, on the outside have participated in this silence.
"The church does have a word for management-labor
relations and that word is human dignity and human value
which must always be placed before all other
considerations. The church and its leaders dare not look
the other way when in the dynamics of industrial strife
clear ethical issues are at stake."
Q You made the national headlines when you addressed the
J. P. Stevens stock-holders annual meeting in 1979. What
A For years we had been pushing the unionization of Stevens'
many textile plants all over the southeast. On this occasion
some of my friends, in this instance, some Roman Catholic
sisters, purchased stock and allowed me to enter the
stockholders' session as their proxy. I managed to get the
floor. To the chairman, Mr. Finley, I said, "I am a Baptist
preacher from Raleigh. I wish you would pay your workers
more. I have a selfish reason for this request. You see, Mr.
Chairman, I suspect that most of your 40,000 workers are
Southern Baptists. I'm also a Southern Baptist — a Baptist
minister approaching retirement. If your workers had more
money, they would give more to their Baptist churches
. . ." Chairman James Finley and many stockholders got
the point. They broke out in smiles. This gave me the
wedge to persuade the Corporation to negotiate fairly with
Q As an insider within the union movement did you ever feel
uncomfortable as a Christian with any of their policies?
A I am honored to hear from certain quarters that I did
influence labor to embrace wider humane causes. Yes, I
think I did become firmly enough established so that I
could sustain the consequences of any honest criticism
leveled by me against union practices. ... As I look back, I
am somewhat surprised that they accepted me as well as
they did. My reputation for exposing racism, my
identification with civil liberties, my stand against war, and
my pressing for unions to be concerned about all workers,
not just the crafts, all of these matters came up for
discussion in union meetings. They were taking a great risk
in bringing me in, and I must pause to give appreciation for
Millard Barbee who braved that risk. The same goes for
Wilbur Hobby and the present president, E. A. Britt. I was
even able to challenge the president of the national
AFL-CIO, George Meany, for not dissociating himself and
the working people of America from the Vietnam war.
Q You often referred to the labor leaders you worked with as
Christians. Of Barbee, you eulogized: "I cherish the
memory of my association with a fellow Christian, who
came up in the ranks of labor and held unfalteringly to the
vision that compassion and concern and caring for the less
privileged could be translated into reality and made
effective through collective strength." This is not the
image the public generally holds.
A I can honestly say that the leadership I have worked with, on
picket lines, in strike rallies, at all the state conventions,
have been among the finest people I have known. I don't
know just how I "got in" with the unions except for a
natural interest and desire to support them. I found
opportunities to make friends with labor leaders and across
the years they have included me and made me one of "the
brethren." As a matter of fact I have run into numerous
labor leaders who were active Christians and very church
conscious. They have told me privately that they wished
their own ministers might be active in the union but they
seemed to hold no grudge against their ministers for their
non-participation. They seemed to understand the
predicament of a southern preacher with regard to the
power structure which so often muzzles the pulpit.
Q You have been dubbed "the dean" of all churchmen working
with organized labor, flow has that affected your over-all
A I have known that I was a voice in the wilderness and I would
not be able to persuade any substantial number of my
fellow clergy to join the cause. I have had no fear from this
kind of activity of alienating the business community from
the church and the gospel. The mainline Protestant
churches are safely in the fold and the business, civic and
commercial leaders are pretty much in control and this will
unfortunately continue for awhile. My outspokenness in
this regard had indeed caused me to lose opportunities to
speak in the chambers of commerce and the civic clubs.
This is a price one must be willing and even happy to pay
- though, to tell the truth, all those I grew up with are in
that side of the ballpark. Nonetheless I am willing to
continue repeating, "There is no real hope for poor
southerners without good, reputable labor union, no other
way to bring about justice and equity and fair distribution
of the good things of our economy."
Yet oddly your congregations and your ecclesiastical
connections have been mostly, as you put it, on the other
side of the ballpark. How did they accept your pro-labor
A Did you know that one of my first appearances before the
Pullen church was to speak on migrant workers? For ten
years I had been minister of the First Baptist church in
Elizabeth City. Through this area each spring and summer
there passed one of the mainstreams of migrant labor.
There they harvested cabbage and string beans and
potatoes. There I saw at first hand their terrible plight. No
one then, and very few now, seem responsible for their
welfare and for their environmental decency. The church
did a little but mostly in the nature of palliatives. We tried
to arouse public indignation and compassion, but were not
too successful. Dr. Poteat, the pastor of Pullen at the time,
invited me to address myself to this problem. And as early
as 1946 I was writing editorials in the new magazine
Christian Frontiers , calling for a rapprochement between
churches and labor. So they were fully apprized of my
Q Nonetheless, it must have been hard for many to accept?
A Yes, I have always strongly identified myself with labor — as
my Saviour did — , and I propose to continue to do so,
though, as you imply, this became one of the chief causes
of unhappiness with some members of our congregation.
Q To many social observers, you are a peculiarity, Bill. You just
don't fit their stereotype of the typical southern preacher.
You've gained the reputation as the south's severest critic,
yet you love the south, you are devoted to the south, and
above all you are its bona fide product. No one can accuse
you of being an outsider. . .
A I do indeed love the south. Like Thoreau, the citizen of
Concord, I can declare I have traveled widely within its
O Yet you mince no words in exposing the south's
shortcomings. Isn't that something of a paradox?
A I see nothing strange in trying to improve the object one
loves the most. Loyalty does not mean to love my
country, my region, my state, my denomination whether it
is right or wrong. Being loyal to the point of never
abandoning the object of my loyalty gives me the right to
address its most glaring deficiencies. The southerners I
identify with, the truly great southerners — Paul Green,
Gerald W. Johnson, Frank Porter Graham, Marion Wright,
and of course its great literary masters like Robert Penn
Warren and William Faulkner — all make the south great. I
am proud to be associated with that brand of southern
Q I notice that all the southerners you cite, while their roots are
deep in their native soil, they speak for all mankind.
A I am what you might call "a born-again" southerner. True, I
was born and bred here and have never lived outside the
south. But you must also remember that I am male, white,
middle-class, Anglo-Saxon, fairly educated, somewhat
advantaged, a privileged Protestant minister, and a
Southern Baptist at that. For me to break the bonds of
this caste structure, I had to be born-again. Only after I
had seen enough poverty and oppression and
discrimination and visited enough bleak jails did I come to
know viscerally the true side of the south. As I grew up, I
learned painfully that the very structures which had
blessed me, which gave me my privileged position,
excluded black people and white poor people. In order to
enjoy the status I possessed by accident of birth, I had to
be willing to share it and to extend it to others.
Q But you must admit, Bill, not all church people interpret
being "born again" that radically. How did you come to
A That I personally have lived so long and so complacently and
so close to their indifference, consenting, like Saul of
Tarsus, holding the coats, will certainly haunt me the rest
of my days on earth and face me on the day of judgment.
We must challenge the middle-class axioms concerning the
poor. I have seen migrant farm-workers in the fields and
their families strewn about the yards of uninhabitable
shacks, I have talked with brown lung castaways, and I
have witnessed the spectacle and smelled the poverty of
the inner city. I have come to the conclusion that these
millions of Americans, trapped in tragedy and unable to
make it on their own, should not therefore be deprived of
their rights and privileges as American citizens. Our Lord
was one of these poor people, and He spent his life among
the poor and lowly, the tired and heavy-laden. The poor,
the old people, the black people, the laboring people who
want secure jobs — they all teach you. I can't help
identifying with them. They rend your heart and stretch it.
Q You once explained your maverick behavior as being
implanted in you while at Wake Forest College.
A Certain professors, yes. The Poteats, Paschal, Cullom, Reid.
They were gentlemen scholars, thoroughly embedded in
classical learning. They opened my eyes to a larger
worldview and in turn taught me to be an independent
Q Though you claim their influence, you and I both know they
would be the first to disclaim your radicalness: your
anti-military stance, your fighting segregation, your
favoring labor unions, your siding with the poor. . .
A I must admit the hardest part of growing up is to see the true
size of one's mentors, and to try to rise above them. Wake
Forest was no hotbed of radicals. The institution has been
graduating preachers into the Baptist convention
leadership for lo these many years and one would be hard
put to find a single heretic or apostate, including myself, in
the whole kit and caboodle. Suffice it here to say that we
must indict our southern colleges and seminaries for their
timidity and want of social vision.
Q What other factors influenced your transformation into a
different kind of preacher?
A When I took my first parish, I was close enough to Raleigh to
meet a young minister also just out of seminary, only he
had graduated from Union in New York City. I couldn't
believe how much the tone and extent of his education
differed from mine. Carl Herman Voss put me onto a lot
of liberal magazines and profound theological books which
had somehow escaped my theological mentors. Not that I
was altogether ignorant of these sources, but the emphasis
at my seminary was different. I found an excitement I had
I gather from your extensive bibliography that you early put
your hand to writing and became rather widely published?
A Not really. Besides dispatching random pieces to this
newspaper and that journal, I became a budding columnist
with my own pseudonym. In fact, during the first year I
produced some twenty columns.
Q What was your by-line?
A Festus Erasmus. Can you believe that? It was a bit
sophomoric. I was trying to combine the word Festus,
which of course is a Roman name in the New Testament
and which means joy, to Erasmus which stands for wisdom
and humanism. I wanted to identify myself with much of
what goes under the banner of humanism. Somewhere I
have read that Martin Luther wrote about Jesus that "if we
take hold of Him as a man we would discover that He is
God." Most of His teaching and action in the New
Testament was mundane, that is to say, having to do with
Q Are you, like Erasmus, a Christian humanist?
A I would not like to be known as a Christian humanist but I
don't mind being called a humanist. I am a Christian who
is also a humanist. It is a beautiful word. No one can truly
believe in the doctrine of incarnation and reject humanism.
"The word became flesh and dwelt among us." Or, again,
"God so loved the world." Isn't it strange that people take
two words, secular, which is a beautiful word and
humanism, which is another beautiful word, both
biblically based, and make them a dirty term!
Q You are well aware that the term "humanist" is under heavy
fire now from the religious right?
A Yes, but I see no reason for their suspicion whatsoever. For
one thing, there are not that many humanists around. But
far more significantly we have here a controversy which in
my judgment is unnecessary, unfortunate, and avoidable.
A deep love-respect should exist between Christian and
Humanist. A willingness to listen and understand and work
together would resolve many differences. And both have a
shared and paramount mutual concern which in religious
terms is the salvation and redemption, and in humanist
terms is the enrichment and fulfillment, of our common
Q Isn't there a theological issue involved too?
A Indeed so. The Christians who reject humanism tend to reject
the humanity of Christ; they approach heresy in the face
of basic Christian belief. But Christians have always been
afraid of this total humanity of Jesus and what it implies.
It is a terrible threat to man's inhumanity to man. These
Christians prefer to keep Jesus mystical, divine and distant.
But the Christian faith for all its mystical and transcendent
and supernatural qualities is yet the most materialistic and
humanistic religion on earth.
Q Your wide humane interests have expressed themselves in the
ecumenical contacts you have always cultivated. In spite of
the sectarian withdrawal of the denomination you belong
to, your church not only belongs to both the Southern and
the American Baptist Conventions but also to the North
Carolina Council of Churches and the World Council.
A I have often found myself more at home with other Christian
bodies on what I take to be the universal spirit of Christ.
An Episcopal magazine has published more of my articles;
the Quakers, especially those in the American Friends
Service Committee, are more compatible with my peace
aims; and early in my ministry I had to make a hard
decision and split with the anti-catholicism of my
predecessor and have since found myself enriched by the
Catholicism expressed by the Berrigans, the Mertons, and
the Rose Mary Reuthers. One of my earliest articles in the
state Baptist journal encouraged my brethern not to shut
their ears to the birth-cries of the National Council of
Churches. Needless to say, I have not always been
successful in these efforts. For instance, a few months
prior to my leaving the pastorate at Flizabeth City, the
Chairman of the Diaconate brought to the attention of the
church that it had become a participant in the World
Council. Some members had gotten the notion that this
organization advocated revolutionary methods, including
racial disturbances. This deacons' meeting was quite
stormy and I was brought to task for somehow having
caused the church to join. They voted to terminate our
O Such rebuffs do not seem to have deterred you over the
A I live in hope. Today I am happy to count among my friends
the Catholic Bishop of the local diocese and many rabbis
across the state.
Q I remember when a recent president of the Southern Baptists
announced that God does not hear the prayer of a Jew you
immediately responded with a clever piece entitled "The
Prayer of Three Jews."
A I along with many other Baptists was shocked hearing such
narrowness from our leader. I am proud to say that my
Pullen congregation has rallied to resist any encroachments
upon our ecumenical inclusiveness made by the
Q Baptists have rebuffed you and disowned you on so many
occasions, sometimes treating you rather shabbily — some
would say with less than Christian charity — , why haven't
you given up on them?
A I've always thought you have an obligation within the church
and the region to understand it, to appropriate it, to grow
in it, to transcend it. True, I have many times been a part
of His Majesty's loyal opposition, but I've never wanted to
leave His Majesty's kingdom.
Q You cannot deny that you have certainly afflicted Baptists
with your endless resolutions — egging them on, agitating
them, reminding them of their self-professed heights,
calling them back to their radical roots. How could they
A You are right to indicate that it took a lot of grace on the
part of both sides in order for us to accept each other. But,
you must remember, I am primarily a Baptist minister
serving my church. I'm not a reformer, or a radical, or a
professional do-gooder, in spite of what they say. But I do
believe the church must lead the way on human rights.
And I think that Baptists have gained a great deal of social
awareness. While my "far out" resolutions may have been
way ahead of them, the truth of the matter is that the
Baptist Convention has come around to adopting in
principle some of them. I never expected anything like
immediate success and I was aware, even when I went
down, I was scoring points, really registering an effect. If I
have maintained my cool or preserved any personal
integrity, it is because way down deep I felt I was for the
most part right. With a God-guided conscience which
counts on the moral capacity latent in all persons one
develops a sense of stability, a calmness, and the courage
to be unpopular.
Q Your son-in-law composed in fun your epitaph:
"Here lies the body of W. W.
No longer around to trouble you."
He was thinking of those who label yon trouble-maker and
A I have been called many things; the worst I cannot mention
in polite society. Names like communist, red, traitor,
nigger-lover. Naturally I am hurt when people so misread
me. I am not by constitution a tough-skinned person. I am
deeply sensitive to such brutal remarks. But I have tried
not to take them personally, managing a smile and
brushing them off with a quip. I was recently reminded by
a friend of an episode that happened years ago here on the
streets of Raleigh, something I had forgotten. We were in a
protest march of some sort and Charlie Craven, a reporter
for the News and Observer was interviewing me. A
passerbyer looked me straight in the face. "You s.o.b.!" he
taunted. My friend reports that I instantly turned to
Charlie and said, "Did you hear what that man called
I have found myself in many tense and dangerous
positions, taking stands for what I believe Christ would
also favor. I console myself that Christ was also a
trouble-maker and that He brought into existence a rag-tag
bunch of followers called upon to turn the world
Q Have you ever been personally harmed or endangered by
your unpopular stands?
A There were the usual hate-letters, obscene telephone calls late
at night, an occasional threat on my life, and I did go to
the extent of parking my car under street lamps, just in
case. . . . But I don't think I ever felt harassed. As the
Psalmist puts it, I may have "imagined a vain thing," and
perhaps, as Shakespeare says, supposed a bush to be a bear.
There were indeed moments of personal fear. Perhaps
greater than this was a sense of guilt, the fear that
somebody might take something out on one of my
children. Just how much my wife and family have suffered
is something I am not able to compute. Probably the
children went through more in their teen ages than we'll
ever know, though they seem to have come through pretty
unscathed. Perhaps a minister's wife who has this
additional burden of a husband like me, suffers most,
especially when the guns attack from both inside and
outside the church. Mary Lib, however, has accused me of
enjoying the thick of battle, even having a zest for it. She
may have a little justifiable resentment against me from
time to time, but I think it may be safely said that the
family has felt that we stood on the ground of principles
and are proud to have done so.
Q In your labors for human rights, the poor, the voiceless and
the defenceless, you have been seen "consorting with" all
sorts of people, communists, revolutionists, anarchists,
professional agitators. Two questions come to mind: first,
how did you manage your Mr. Clean image, and, second,
how do you think a Christian should function amidst such
A "Mr. Clean" is the last thing my bitterest enemies and closest
friends would call me. They both know me better than
that. And I know myself better than that. But I think I get
what you mean. How does the Christian associate with the
world without having the world to rub off on him. All I
can say is that from my earliest commitment I have known
it was absolutely necessary. In my first published article I
gave expression to that fear: that no matter how noble the
truth uttered it could be eclipsed by the moral flaw in the
On the other hand, you must know also that I am
something of "the last Puritan." Believe it or not, I am
basically conservative. Look at my life, a thoroughly
institutional man, a democrat, a supporter of law and
order. I admit to a paradox in this claim. I tried to
formulate this paradox once in an article widely circulated,
"Why I am a Conservative." One of my most vigorous
critics upon seeing the piece is said to have beat his head in
Q Yet I have heard you say that you have in fact become more
radical over the years, more radical than most of the
organizations to which you belong.
A I hope I have become more radical and I think I've also
become more conservative. I am not at heart an anarchist.
On the contrary, you might even call me a law and order
person. However law and order are never to be all and the
end all. My record in labor halls, in civil liberties, within
church councils does indeed appear to be impatient with
plodding programs and restrictive goals.
Q You are aware that some groups do not think you radical
enough, those Christians who think you exemplify civil
religion, those committed to liberation theology, those not
unlike churchmen in Poland who identify Marxism and
Christianity. How do you answer them?
A That is the penalty of living too long! If one lives long
enough one is bound to live through different levels of
social concern; that's true also of Christians. However I
find myself even in my sixties sitting on boards and
committees alongside these younger radicals, able to
communicate with them and not differing too widely on
our ultimate goals. The radical vision of my early years has
stood me well in the vagaries of history. I suppose if there
are any two contentions that might separate us they would
have to do with my faith in the democratic process and my
fear of taking up the sword.
Q You have been called "North Carolina's voice of dissent."
How and why did you undertake that role?
A I guess I just grabbed the stick of my Baptist heritage by the
Q What do you mean by that?
A I mean that most Baptists have no idea how radical their
heritage is. We are a denomination born in dissent,
conceived among a persecuted minoritv. I have felt all
along that Southern Baptists, instead of being cautious and
culture-conforming, that we should lift up our voice with
strength and without fear and speak the prophetic word
and pronounce the divine judgment on issues which so
clearly and so unavoidably are freighted with Christian
Q But you were so often alone in expressing that Baptist claim;
even they sometimes thought you a laughable lot.
A Dissent is never easy, particularly in critical times. But it is all
the more necessary to give expression of dissent in such a
time. The majority opinion of any given society is often
not the right opinion. Wise people look for truth and
reality as they float to the surface in the boiling seas of
social unrest. The less wise can think of nothing but the
stifling of protest and the killing off of dissent. The society
which does this blinds itself to possible deficiencies. True,
the demonstration of protest and dissent is frequently an
ugly episode. It heats up the passions of all concerned until
the lava of violence may pour over the slopes in a
destroying hate. Still protest and dissent offer striking
opportunities for a culture, armed with its own mores and
entrenched in its own customs, to see itself as it really is,
to become less defensive of innovation, and to alter itself
for the better. To paraphrase our Lord, I think there is
more weeping in heaven over one dissenter squelched than
over ninety-nine anti-dissident conservatives safely in the
Q You seem to have found both your denomination and your
state to be something less than hospitable toward dissent?
A Yes, on numerous occasions I seem to have touched the raw
nerve of our exploitive conservatism. In our state, for
instance, there seems to be a systematic use of courts and
jails to suppress dissent. We charge communist countries
for doing precisely this. We in turn must never use the
structures of criminal justice to suppress dissent. And in
religious circles we must never bury creative dissent under
the cloak of supercilious piety and false unity.
Q Do you find your public devotion to civil rights at odds with
your Christian ministry?
A Whatever activism I have manifested grows naturally out of
my religion. I operate on two levels — the Sermon on the
Mount and the Bill of Rights. And, you must remember,
my Baptist tradition holds to the literalness of the Sermon
and contributed by suffering whiplashes to the particulars
of the Bill.
Q There are some who hold that you are less a minister of the
Gospel than you are a minister of the law, i.e., preaching
more from the laws upholding civil liberties than from the
A Well, it cuts both ways. We have lots of people who side with
law and order and wrap that position up in the gospel. On
the other side, we desperately need the gospel speaking to
the law. I would like to think that I have spent my time
doing the latter, pursuing the spiritual radicalness implicit
in the basic American documents.
Many of my arguments for justice and equality do in fact
emerge from my Baptist understanding of the separation
of church and state. I reject the myth of a Christian
nation, as do all true Baptists. To be a Baptist with our
history is to witness to the espousal of a free church in a
secular state. In defending atheists this has to be done on
principle. Freedom of religion implies also freedom from
religion. There is no true guarantee of the practice of our
faith unless we solidly defend the rights of people to have
no religious faith. The Constitution never mentions God or
the Bible or life immortal. It simply says in the first
Amendment that the government will have no part in
advancing or inhibiting religion.
Q In your self-appointed role as watch-dog of the Legislature,
for decades now, you have invited the label "political
parson." How do you reply to that?
A Well, it is true that I have functioned as chairman of the
legislative committee for several organizations. And you
know the "second legislature" did move out Hillsboro
Street closer to me in the deluxe motels after the
destruction of the Sir Walter Hotel. Thus the label
originates from my proximity and my organizational
assignments. ... I never felt that I was too political. No
one who knows me well could ever have suspected me of
wanting political power. I have never wanted to be a
politician and have always hoped I could remain a
minister. I did feel that the church is as good a place to
achieve or to help achieve desired political change, or
changes which are brought about by political leadership. I
have never wanted to do anything political that would
advance the church I serve or the denomination I belong to
or religion in general. So I am not a "political parson," but
I do believe with Aristotle that every person is a political
Q The Gospels speak of those dragged before kings and rulers to
bear witness. Now you're not one to be "dragged," but
you've certainly found yourself testifying in the presence
of political power on more than one occasion.
A I have been blessed by politician-friends in high places. Four
of my speeches have been inserted into the Congressional
Record, by four different Senators. I have been to the
White House under two presidents. On the other hand, I
have stood in vigil at the gates of the White House and
have released public letters challenging the record of some
of our officials. As I said before, politics is not a dirty but
a beautiful word, so let's be unblushingly political, all of
us. That's the crucial difference between Jesus' comments
and our privilege to participate in the democratic process.
We need not be victims when we can contribute. In my
judgment, you cannot be a Christian unpolitically today.
Q You don't see any conflict, then, between preaching the
Gospel and practicing politics?
A I can hear people saying: This is a preacher talking about
politics and government and he has hardly mentioned God,
the Bible and the church. Why doesn't he stop his
meddling and stick to preaching the gospel? Well, the
Gospel has something to say to those people. "For I was
an hungered and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty and ye
gave me drink; I was a stranger and ye took me in; naked
and ye clothed me; I was sick and ye visited me; I was in
prison, and ye came to me. Verily I say unto you,
inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these,
my brethren, ye have done it unto me." If anyone knows a
non-political way of dealing with massive hunger, massive
sickness, massive poor housing, massive prison reform, and
doing it realistically, I should love to hear from him.
Q Your defense of the separation of church and state does not
imply, then, that church people and churches themselves
should not get involved in politics?
A Not at all. When the church withdraws from the political life
of society to protect its purity it ends by becoming the
very thing it sought to escape. For when the church has
said to politics, You render to Caesar and we shall render
to God, the church has already become a replica of the
society it abjures. And society will never be transformed or
redeemed by a replica of itself.
Q How does your political record differ from the aggressive
politics of the new religious right?
A I defend their right to be engaged in politics. What I do
object to is their choice of issues, the very circumscribed
list of issues, by which they grade candidates. Their limited
morality tends to deal with personal and surface sins
instead of the more biblical definition of sin as rooted in
powers and principalities in high places. Moreover, their
moralism tends to approve of the privileged few and to
forget the masses suffering on the borders of their own
standard of living. Their identity of God with our
American way of life, of a military God who crusades
against our enemies, of a vindictive God who approves of
capital punishment — all this tends to place God on narrow
political grounds. Nonetheless we must not work to
deprive them of being political; we must expose their
politics for what much of it is, selfishness under religious
Q You must admit that as a Baptist preacher politics has mixed
you with strange company and put you in odd places. You
have defended the Ku Klux Klan and the Communist
Workers Party, the American Nazis and the Moonies, and
all sorts of schemes viewed by conventional society as
A Do I not find it an awkward stance for a preacher to defend
such things as pornography and brown-bagging and the
decriminalization of marijuana and of private crimes; the
answer is yes indeed this is an embarrassment. From time
to time I have passed the burden on to other civil
libertarians to testify in these cases. And on occasion I
have simply said that I have to wear two hats. I have also
explained the situation by saying that, whereas I may be
personally opposed to certain practices, that as a citizen in
a pluralist society believing in freedom, we have to deal
with these issues not so much as sins as social issues. Also
what may be an ethical matter to some of us may not be
so to others but we all must promote the free society. I
have on occasions said that, whereas I defend the rights of
all people to do certain things as citizens, on Sunday
morning I will denounce these practices from the pulpit! It
is still true that I fear obscenity less than censorship; this is
a case where we need not laws to suppress but a deeper
commitment to the mandate to overcome evil with good.
Q Did you ever use the pulpit for political purposes?
A I have been charged with that by some within my own
congregation and by many without. But the answer to that
charge rests on the conception of the free pulpit. As I see
it, to preach the Gospel devoid of political relevance is
Q There's a widely circulated jingle about your Pullen ministry:
"Pullen stands for preachers who in politics dabble
Exciting the fury and hate of the rabble.
Enflaming the mind with fanatical vigor
To crush down the whites and build up the nigger."
A I guess I've heard the whole range of criticism over the years,
but I've tried not to let that type of mentality deter me
from exercising the free pulpit. The Pullen congregation
guaranteed me that privilege. . . . To win the victory
requires that we give to the pulpit, I should say, restore to
the pulpit, that freedom in responsibility through which
alone the gospel can be proclaimed in its fulness and
without fear. Many silent folk would exhibit the same love
of freedom and truth if circumstances permitted the kind
of freedom that is available to a minister who is unafraid
to accept it. The miracle of change, the leaven of
transformation, begins to take place in the community
where there is at least one free voice. The editor, the
school teacher, yes, even the politician, breathe a freer air
and move with a firmer courage, however, unconsciously,
and act with a different emphasis in those communities
where truth is constantly proclaimed. Truth spoken in one
area elicits the expression of truth in every area. All other
freedoms depend ultimately upon the freedom of religion,
and the freedom of religion is null and void until the pulpit
has come to speak the truth in love.
Q Bill, from what you describe, you seem to have pursued a
double-vocation in life, the one in the free pulpit of a local
congregation, the other in your worldly citizenship role.
A I have tried to act out in my life, as an ordinary citizen in a
democratic society, the implications of the Gospel. That
meant I spent much of my time beyond my parish duties.
For instance, during my ten-year tenure as chairman of the
North Carolina Advisory Committee to the Civil Rights
Commission, we conducted investigations and progress
reports on Indian rights, prisoner rights, migrant worker
rights and the state of desegregation within the public
schools. We also conducted a hearing with
recommendations on the Greensboro massacre of 1979.
Q What do you think of the reversal of the present political
leadership to your long campaign for basic democratic
A I am painfully aware of this reversal — of the cutbacks in
allocations for these studies and of the firing of Arthur
Fleming, Chairman of the U. S. Commission. Oftentimes
our feeble efforts get thwarted, and some have even
alluded to what we have done as exercises in futility and
Q Does it bother you that progress is not always forthcoming?
A No, our Lord never assured us success; He only demanded
that we remain faithful to Him in the works that He does
in the world. I have, to be honest, on the whole fought a
losing fight, and I am forced to address myself to the New
Testament command "not to grow weary in well-doing."
Q One of your heroes was Frank Porter Graham. His career was
also accompanied by tragic set-backs, yet he was a
noble-spirited loser. Am I correct in surmising that your
eulogy to him expresses your own philosophy? Here is
how some of it reads:
"My final memory is a legacy. It has to do with Dr.
Graham's attitude regarding controversy. How could so
saintly a man be so controversial, and survive? It was
always a part of my teaching that good men managed to
avoid controversy but here was without doubt one of the
most moral men who ever lived in our state moving from
one controversy to the other and always maintaining
respect and regard for his opponents. His formula was
simple: Don't go around looking for controversy, mounted
and armed like a knight. And don't waste your energies
and resources on side issues and peripheral matters. But
when you encounter situations of principle, when you are
face to face with ethical issues, summon all your powers
and meet them head on. He told us this and something else
too. In a day when, as a famous football coach once put it,
'Winning is not everything. It is the only thing.' Dr.
Graham said that losing may be more important than
winning if you can make a witness in losing a battle. Be
sure, he said, that you go down with all flags flying."'
A You may say that I have indeed had to ponder those words
afresh since I wrote them on the occasion of a great man's
death. My recent experience has made them come alive.
Q Turning to a more basic question, what would you say has
been the theological undergirding of your preaching and
A The more I understand Christian faith, the more I see the
Bible is concerned with justice. And I've found that if God
has any prejudice at all, He's prejudiced on the side of the
poor and deprived and underprivileged. . . . The Scriptures
tell us that the Messiah who was to come and the Messiah
who did come, and is ever coming, identifies His mission
and His message with the underprivileged, the powerless,
the alienated, the blind and the lame and the suppressed. If
the church ever realizes that God is on the side of these
people and is summoning us to their cause, all of these
fabricated axioms and myths about welfare people will be
clobbered, every mountain of pride and self illusion will be
brought low, every valley or rut shall be filled, and we shall
make straight in the desert highways for our God. And
when we have ministered unto the least of God's children
we have done it unto Him.
This booklet is based on taped interviews made during 1981 and
on a book in preparation covering the nearly fifty years of
Finlator's public career.
Historical Society had the perspicacity to discern this several years ago and
garnered those files for itself. Four U. S. Senators have inserted his speeches
into the Congressional Record. He has conducted a spirited correspondence
with Senator (ret.) Sam Ervin, with whom he was closely identified on the
constitutional rights of citizens but with whom he diverged on practically
every other matter. Listed among his friends are Paul Green, Frank Porter
Graham, Marion Wright, Sam Ragan, Tom Lassiter and a host of other
As might be expected, his name is synonymous with controversy —
controversies such as those surrounding his attacks on Billy Graham and the
Vietnam war, and his 1979 telegram to President Carter concerning the
desegregation of the state university system. Never a person to lack courage
or to keep quiet when he saw human values threatened, he has earned the
reputation of fulfilling the motto of the university he attended, pro
humanitate (Wake Forest). As democracy thrives on its creative dissenters,
few and harried though they be, Bill has been one of democracy 's finest
promoters. His paraphrase of the Gospel reads, "There is more sorrow in
heaven over one dissenter squelched, than over all conservatives who brook
no dissent." W. W. Finlator is truly North Carolina's voice of dissent.
"God always takes His stand unconditionally and passionately
on this side and this side alone: against the lofty and on behalf
of the lowly, against those who already enjoy right and privilege
and on behalf of those who are denied it and deprived of it."
— Karl Barth in Church Dogmatics, II, Pt. 1,
(1957), p. 386.
"We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history
from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects,
the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled — in
short, from the perspective of those who suffer."
— Barth 's disciple, Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
in Letters from Prison, p. 17.
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